Los Angeles Lakers Steve Nash of Canada intervenes as Kobe Bryant berates Metta World Peace for committing a foul during their NBA game in Los Angeles

Lakers continue to build chemistry, move into the playoff picture with win over Bulls

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LOS ANGELES — It’s been a long time in the making, and there’s plenty more work to be done over the regular season’s final 18 games. But for the first time all year, the Lakers can look at the standings and see themselves as an official part of the playoff picture after Sunday’s 90-81 win over the Bulls at Staples Center.

The Lakers are now 33-31 on the season, and sit in the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings, a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz.

In Friday night’s win over the Raptors, the Lakers needed several shots that were both miraculous and heroic from Kobe Bryant down the stretch to come back and get the overtime victory. They didn’t need much from him offensively in this one, however, thanks to a balanced attack and a strong third quarter from Steve Nash, who scored 10 of his 16 points in the period.

Bryant didn’t even reach double figures in scoring until he hit a three-pointer with 4:52 remaining in the third quarter, which pushed the Lakers lead to 15. He finished with a team-high 19 points, to go along with seven rebounds and nine assists, while five of his teammates finished in double digits.

The Bulls are not known for their offense, and struggled to score in this one. Chicago shot a dismal 37.1 percent from the field, and went just 4-16 from three-point distance. But the defensive effort from the Lakers was stronger than usual, led by an increasingly more active Dwight Howard, whose 21 rebounds helped L.A. dominate the Bulls on the glass for most of the contest.

Chicago was able to cut a lead that once reached 18 points down to eight with just over eight minutes remaining in the fourth, but the Lakers responded by scoring the next five points, while holding the Bulls scoreless for the next three and a half minutes.

More important than this single game victory and the temporary playoff position that it earned the Lakers is the improved chemistry the team is showing on the court. The communication was constant in this one defensively, with players giving their all on loose ball and rebound opportunities, while the body language overall was genuinely positive. The change from the way these guys interacted with each other in the opening months of the season is both noticeable and substantial.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some bumps along the way — Bryant was furious with Metta World Peace at the end of the first half, after he committed an offensive foul while Bryant was dribbling down the clock to get off a final shot. He yelled at Metta as the two walked back down the floor, but all was forgiven later when Bryant was seen with his arm around his teammate on the bench early in the fourth.

The extent of how much Howard can improve from a health standpoint as the Lakers close out the regular season, along with the amount of chemistry the team can continue to build during that time will largely determine its postseason fate.

Winning can cure a lot of issues, and certainly helps the team-building a lot more than it hurts. At least after Sunday’s victory, L.A. can now, if only briefly, officially see itself as part of the playoff picture.

Can Pat Riley convince Hassan Whiteside to take a little less to stay in Miami?

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 29:  Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat reacts after a call against the Charlotte Hornets during game six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 29, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Miami has a lot of key free agents this summer — Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Joe Johnson, Amar’e Stoudemire — but at the top of the list of guys they want to keep is Hassan Whiteside. Pat Riley said re-signing Whiteside is the Heat’s top priority. The shot-blocking center is at the heart of the style Erik Spoelstra wants to play because of his ability to protect the paint on defense, run the floor, and get buckets at the rim.

He’d fit with a lot of other NBA teams, too. Which is why he is going to get paid a max or near max contract (that and the salary cap spike that means a lot of teams have money to spend). While Whiteside reportedly likes Miami, the challenge for Heat is they do not have his Bird rights so they need to use cap space re-sign him. In an ideal world, Riley could work his magic and get Whiteside to take a little discount, but would he? Barry Jackson laid it out at the Miami Herald.

My understanding, reiterated in recent days, is if all things are equal financially, Whiteside wants to re-sign with Miami. He likes living here and likes the organization.

But we’ve repeatedly heard the Heat’s preference is persuading him to sign under the max (projected to be $21.6 million next season) by selling him on the lack of state income tax, his comfort level here, the roster flexibility created by him taking a bit less; and that Miami can offer 7.5 percent annual raises off the first year salary (compared with 4.5 percent elsewhere). That means a four-year deal starting at $20.7 million with Miami would equal a four-year deal starting at $21.6 million elsewhere.

But if Miami offers, say, $2 million less per year than max offers elsewhere, what would Whiteside do?  That decision hasn’t been made and it won’t be an easy one.

My guess is the Heat will max out Whiteside if that’s what it takes to keep him. Maybe he would take a discount, maybe not, but in the end, the Heat need him and can’t replace him (Al Horford is a free agent and would cost more, and there isn’t another center nearly as good out there). Are the Heat going to let Whiteside walk and take a significant hit on the court over just a couple million? Probably not.

But with Whiteside and Wade in the fold (they aren’t letting him leave, either, even if it costs them $20 million a year) it’s likely Deng will land elsewhere. Probably the same with Johnson, unless he is willing to take a steep discount to stay (and I wouldn’t bet on that).

Jeanie Buss on Phil Jackson: “He’s committed to New York for many years”

Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, left, sits next to Phil Jackson, right, president of the New York Knicks, during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the Knicks and the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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There were good reasons Luke Walton wanted five fully-committed years from the Lakers on his coaching contract. The Lakers’ current front office doesn’t exactly project stability, Luke wanted some insurance.

The most commonly mentioned front office scenario for Los Angeles is that next summer Jim Buss steps aside after another rough season for the Lakers, and in the summer of 2017 — when he has an out in his New York deal — Jeanie Buss brings in Phil Jackson to take over the Lakers basketball side and save the franchise.

Who says no to that? Well to start, Buss. Here is what she said on ESPN Radio with Ramona Shelburne and Michelle Beadle:

“No,” Buss said, “To visit, yes..but in terms of basketball, he’s committed to New York for many years. He’s building something there. He has a mission, he’s on that journey to get the team back to where he believes it can be and it will be. He’s a former Knick…he loves New York, he loves the fans, he wants to make them proud. In terms of the Lakers, we have a front office. They’re putting together a team…they have a vision. I’m excited to see what the future holds for us. So, to answer your question….no, there’s no plans for Phil to come back here.”

On one hand, what else is Buss going to say? “Sure, I plan to force my brother out of power and bring in my fiance to run the team next summer, it’s all very Shakespearean isn’t it?”

That said, I do tend to believe her (at least that there is not a master plan), and if I were a Laker fan I’d be okay with this. The Knicks have gotten better under Jackson and did draft Kristaps Porzingis, but Jackson also hired Derek Fisher, and was wed to the triangle until that was forced out of his hands and he hired Jeff Hornacek as coach. Now comes Jackson’s biggest test as the guy in the big chair because there is some serious roster work to do with the Knicks (starting with finding a point guard who can play up-tempo). Jackson has kept owner James Dolan at arm’s length from basketball decisions, which is worth every penny he is getting paid, but he’s not been brilliant.

If and when Jim Buss moves out of basketball operations, the Lakers will have options as one of the premier GM jobs in the NBA. They likely can do better than Jackson.

Pau Gasol considering skipping Olympics because of Zika

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 29:  Pau Gasol #16 of the Chicago Bulls watches the action during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) — Pau Gasol is considering not playing at the Olympics because of the Zika virus.

The Spanish basketball player said Monday there is too much uncertainty about the situation in Brazil and anyone going to Rio de Janeiro for the games should “think about” whether it’s worth the risk.

The Chicago Bulls player said other Spanish athletes have also expressed their concerns about the virus and are also considering skipping the games.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see some athletes deciding not to participate in the games to avoid putting their health and the health of their families at risk,” Gasol said, adding that he was among the athletes making such considerations.

“I’m thinking about (whether or not to go),” he said. “Just like every athlete, or any other person considering going to Rio, should be thinking about it.”

Without giving names, Gasol said he talked to other athletes who told him they may not participate in the games.

“Some of these athletes are planning to have children in the near future and this could affect them, it could affect the health of their kids and their wives,” he said at an event for one of his sponsors in Madrid. “Their health should come first.”

Brazil has been badly hit by Zika, the mosquito-borne virus linked to severe birth defects and possible neurological problems in adults.

Gasol said officials involved in the games must come forward with “more clear information” about the risks athletes could be facing if they decide to compete in Rio.

“I hope the national Olympic committees and the health organizations can be as clear as possible about the risks in Brazil so athletes can decide whether or not to take risks,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve been told enough about it.”

Gasol mentioned the call from 150 health specialists to consider postponing or moving the Aug. 5-21 Olympics, something the World Health Organization rejected last week.

“We need to understand the seriousness of the situation,” Gasol said. “Even though there are some soothing words being said, we know that there are different opinions about the subject.”

Gasol said he is being proactive and has been trying to gather as much information as possible about the virus and the risks it could pose for himself and his family. He said he has contacted experts in the area to try to know more about the virus.

“I feel responsible to know more about the situation and to inform everyone about it,” he said. “It’s important to talk openly about this. It’s a very delicate situation.”

Gasol helped Spain win the silver medal at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on Warriors-Thunder Game 7: ‘We just want the winner’

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23:  Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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LeBron James didn’t get his wish – Dwyane Wade and the Heat – for the Eastern Conference finals.

In advance of tonight’s Warriors-Thunder Game 7, his coach isn’t specifying a preferred NBA Finals opponent.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:

“We just want the winner,” Lue said. “Just whoever wins. We’re preparing for both and after tonight we will get a chance to see who we finally play.”

This seems like the wrong approach. I’d rather face the loser. That team is likely more beatable. Alas, it doesn’t work that way. Lue is accepting the inevitable.

The Warriors would probably be the tougher matchup. They’ve been the better team all season and would put Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love into a ton of pick-and-rolls. It’s a great offensive matchup for Stephen Curry. But beating Golden State – the defending champions with a 73-9 record – would bring greater glory and personal redemption to LeBron, who clearly views the Warriors as an outlier.

The Thunder would be no pushovers, but Cleveland would have a better chance of winning. Even with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City just hasn’t played as well as Golden State over a long stretch.

This is obviously a discussion only for fun. The Cavs have no say in their Finals opponent. The Warriors and Thunder will decide that tonight.